Grilled cheese, beer and supporting a good cause. It sounds like the recipe for the perfect Denver evening. What could possibly go wrong?
Denver’s first Grilled Cheese Festival started smoothly Wednesday evening on April 12 at the McNichols Civic Center Building. Vendors planted themselves evenly throughout the building’s two floors and by 6:30 p.m. the building was sufficiently packed with people excited to taste some grilled cheese goodness and be a part of a good cause.
The event was hosted by the Imagination Library of Denver, an affiliate of Dolly Parton’s program that originally launched in 1995. The program came to Denver in 2015.
The program’s director, Sara Randall, seemed to be everywhere at once throughout the evening, talking to both guests and vendors while also giving direction to volunteers.
“It’s a free book program started 20 years ago by Dolly in Tennessee,” Randall said. “We mail one book a month to a child. We’re trying to foster a love of reading.”
Randall said she convinced a group of friends to help her take on the endeavor of raising money for the program a couple of years ago. When they first began to plan the festival, they thought around 200 people might show up.
Clearly, Colorado folks like grilled cheese and good beer a lot more than anticipated. Tickets sold fast and the number of attendees ballooned to 1,200.
Lines for food and drink stretched across the rooms. People like Katherine Boucher waited up to 45 minutes for two bites of cheese and bread.
“I was expecting a little more grilled cheese and a little less line,” Boucher said, who heard about the event on Facebook and was all for it. “It’s really nice to do something where you get grilled cheese and you’re helping people. If it was better executed I’d definitely say I’d do it again.”
Max Epshteyn from Pug Ryan’s Brewery poured tasters of beer for an endless line of thirsty guests.
“I will say that I hope next year they have more food vendors,” Epshteyn said. “It seems like it’s more beer and other alcohol, when I think people’s main intention was to come here and try some grilled cheese.”
He added that everyone still seemed to be having a good time. Charla Jestic and Kate Jenkis said they had come with the notion there would be more grilled cheese, too.
“There is so much beer and I wanted more food,” Jestic said.
Both of them said they were enthused about an event that had more to it than drinking and being local.
“What’s a better cause than giving back to kids,” Jenkis said. “It has great potential. People should stick with it after some of the logistics have been figured out.”
Disappointed guests could be heard complaining about the lack of food and organization as the evening grew later. Even the appearance of Dolly Parton failed to fix it. Perhaps not the real Dolly Parton, but look alike Sandy Anderson, who arrived wearing a clinging low cut fringed outfit and sporting tall platinum hair, was the next best thing. A small crowd snapped pictures with their phones and waited to have selfies taken with her.
“I love these events,” Anderson said about the festival. “Imagination Library is my favorite because it’s something that’s accomplishing something good.”
Anderson played the part well, talking with fans in a friendly southern accent and posing for pictures. For others, her appearance failed to make up for lack of food vendors.
Mead St. Station was one of two food vendors that did make an appearance on Wednesday. Volunteer Ethan Bair said the restaurant felt their grilled cheese game was pretty strong and the festival proved a good public relations opportunity.
“I think some of the grilled cheese vendors dropped out at the last minute,” Bair said. “It wasn’t something these guys can help.”
Gary Arnold had purchased tickets in the VIP section of the festival that had access to grilled cheese and beer, minus the lines.
“It was probably easier to get a grilled cheese sandwich in the VIP than the general admission,” Arnold said, “but at the end of the day that’s not why we’re here. Right? I had a chance to meet Sara Randall and she explained how it was all benefiting Imagination Library.”
The festival did succeed in raising a lot of money for books. Randall was pleased with the turnout, but felt the backlash of many disgruntled people who sent emails the next day.
“We’re working to make it right,” Randall said. “We can’t do this without the community. It’s important to me that we learn from this event. It just makes me want to work harder. This program and ultimately access to books, is the most important take away.”